Friday, January 29, 2016

Another One Bites the Dust

Tom Porton, a high school English teacher in the Bronx with over 40 years of experience quit teaching. Yeah, so what? If you haven’t already read this NYT piece about Porton, you should.

Mr. Tom Porton, via UFT
Twenty-five years ago AIDS was a serious issue in low socio-economic areas nationwide, and the Bronx was no different. Porton thought the most effective preventative measure was an education, and so he teamed up with Montefiore Medical Center to educate his students. Since then, he’s distributed an AIDS educational flier to his students annually. His efforts have earned him national recognition, including a spot in the National Teachers Hall of Fame.

In additon to staging plays and dramas, Porton also teaches a civic leadership class that meets before school. His students hone their leadership skills and connect to their local community (which includes feeding the homeless). It’s no surprise his students praise him as a life-changer and continue to nominate him for awards.

Brendan Lyons, Porton’s principal, recently asked Porton to stop distributing his H.I.V./AIDS educational fliers because he considered them “inappropriate.” In fact, Lyons asked Porton chase down fliers any he’d already distributed to students. Porton’s principal also took away his civic leadership class because it wasn’t Common Core-aligned — you know, the class that met before normal school hours…

Tom Porton submitted his resignation papers last week.

Mr. Strauss, a teacher who changed my life (I wrote about him here), forwarded me the NYT article about Porton. The article, coupled with who sent it to me, made me incredibly sad — it’s Mr. Strauss’s final year where he teaches as well. The guy doesn’t want to stop teaching, I know he doesn’t.

I wonder just how many great teachers we’re going to lose (and have already lost) in the coming years because of our obsession with being “data-driven,” “standards-aligned,” and “college-ready” [insert other buzz words here, I know I’ve missed a bunch].

Another one bites the dust.
Our education system has created the circumstances necessary for great teachers to go extinct. Porton was the classic, inspirational teacher. The heart and soul of his school. I didn’t know him, but I bet his passion was contagious. The kind of teacher Hollywood would love to turn into a movie.

What will today’s students say about the new teachers we’re training to be test-preppers first, nurturers second? Imagine students of today speaking about their current teachers twenty years from now. What would they say? Here’s my guess:
“Ms. So-and-So was life-changing. I passed that [state exam name here] with flying colors because of her. Or was it the [state exam name here]? Who cares.” 
“Mr. So-and-So was incredibly passionate. The way he told me never to leave anything blank on [state exam name here]: WOW. You just don’t get that kind of personal attention anymore.” 
“Mx. So-and-So was so organized and methodical. I distinctly remember where they posted their daily objectives, essential questions, and data wall. Oh and that soothing countdown to [state exam name here] on the chalkboard — beautiful.”

You get the idea.

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Zuck Stops Here

By now, most people know Mark Zuckerberg (CEO of the-application-responsible-for-making-you-think-you-live-an-unfulfilling-life) and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, announced they're giving away roughly 99% of their wealth (about $45 billion) to charity. In their letter, they highlighted "personalized learning" as an initiative the charity will focus on. 

I've read and heard mixed opinions, which is a good thing, but what disappoints me are the overly reactionary and negative views some educators have written. We should not be so quick to judge the so-called "charity's" efforts - they haven't really even done anything yet. As a former high school teacher, I’m curious what the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will invest in and develop. If what they're investing in is anything like the software Facebook is piloting with Summit Schools, it could be a good thing people! 

Thank you, South Park.
To be 100% clear, I am skeptical of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative's plans for education. All educators should be: Silicon Valley and its billionaire children haven't exactly had a record of success in education. The Gates Foundation can be credited for tying students' test scores to teacher evaluations. Imagine if we imported this practice into the medical world where patients' lifestyles (and their inherited genetics) were factored into doctors' ratings. If it sounds ridiculous to hold doctors accountable this way, it's the same for teachers and I cannot support that. 

However, Gates is just one example. As educators in a complex 21st century, we teach our students to avoid judging the many from the few. Perhaps we should take our own advice. I urge all active (and inactive) educators to approach the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to get in on what they have in store. Let us be a force for collaboration and guidance. We can't tell our students to be "life long learners" but then shut the door and put headphones on with the threat of change on the horizon. 

As all teachers are aware, teachers do more than just teach. They're role models, counselors, friends, advocates, coaches, and ultimately, subordinates to administrators. Teachers have two sets of audiences to please: students and administrators (and technically parents too, sadly depending on what zip code you teach in). Students and administrators have different (and often conflicting) needs. Administrators performing class observations may miss a completely engaged class and instead focus on a checklist of basic, low-impact chores: failing to update bulletin boards and data walls or failing to post an objective on the chalkboard. 

When I was teaching, I investigated technology that could've eased my burden by even by a little. I was always trying to be efficient. Why? Because I knew what the job wanted me to do and what I actually could do was in conflict. What if I actually had the time to make authentic, individual assessments for my students on a daily basis? That might’ve made me less jaded about this industry than I am today.

As former and current educators, we should set the example to be proactive (and not reactionary) when someone "invades" our turf. From what I’ve read and heard, Facebook’s team works directly with Summit's school teachers to learn about the colossal demands made upon them in our increasingly archaic system. Sometimes, it may take an outsider ten feet away to propose a remedy to an enduring headache. 

Critics of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative have even starting knocking on Max's future education. Max is their newborn daughter, and while I admit writing an open letter to her to announce the Initiative was in poor taste, she's still an infant.
"She [Max] will likely get small classes and individualized attention..." 
Every student deserves small classes, individualized support, and love. I bet by the time Max is old enough to actually attend school, she'll be learning some lessons via video, submitting work online, and completing tasks remotely. I bet Max’s teacher will likely feel his/her job as a teacher is less Herculean and likely more manageable. Maybe because some aspects of the job will be remedied with technology. Perhaps Max's future teachers will have the luxury to try new approaches in the classroom to shake things up, something their predecessors may not have been able to do because their system simply wasn't built for them to do so. Nobody knows, so I was seriously disappointed to read such blatant clickbait written by the education world's most respected professionals. 

Yes, most public school students don’t have small classes and loving tutors. But let’s be real: that’s not the private sector’s fault: that’s our own education system’s fault for (1) failing to remedy a crumbling system and (2) continuing to burden educators with more and more responsibilities without providing added human capital or technology. The private sector sees the American outdated education system as an “opportunity” (as any company would in a capitalist society) and is stepping in due to the failure of our own education policies.

If we're unwilling to at least approach the companies willing to invest in our industry, then who do we have left? I would rather take help from a private company wiling to listen to my woes than from our legislators and governors, who are still flip-flopping on whether student test scores should impact teaching evaluations. These are also the same people who are about to pass the "Every Student Succeeds Act," which in essence, is Congress's way of giving us a shoulder shrug.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

ESSA Gets "Developing" on My Rubric

The final draft of the "No Child Left Behind" rewrite is heading to Congress for a vote. With another persuasive title, the "Every Student Succeeds Act" (ESSA) takes one step forward from the two steps back taken with "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) and "Race to the Top" (RTTP).

I really think we should take some inspiration from IKEA for bill naming schemes. I'm just not sure every member of Congress read all 670 pages of NCLB. I wonder how many just looked at the title and thought, "This sounds emotionally compelling. I can't vote against this!" But I digress.

Credit: PhotoPin, licensed under CC BY 2.0
The ESSA hands over substantial authority from the federal government over to states and districts. It also sucker punches Arne Duncan's legacy by limiting the power and role of the U.S. education secretary. If the bill gets signed, the federal education secretary will no longer be able to "push" for a particular set of standards to be adopted (e.g. Common Core, NGSS) nationally. 

Tip of the hat: under ESSA, the federal government can no longer order states to "take drastic action" against schools with low test scores. They can't shut schools down and they can't transform public schools into charters. Sorry fans of the parent-trigger law, I can't support corporate-backed privatization under the guise of parent empowerment. The strategies supported to turn schools around in "trigger" legislation have no proof they work and are not evidence-based. "Good" ideas applied as a band-aid with no basis in research often fail very hard. I suggest advocates of the parent-trigger law instead come up with ways to bolster PTA participation and engage their respective communities before hastily wiping out entire institutions with rich histories.

Under the ESSA, there will still be standardized testing for students from 3rd to 8th grade and in high school. That's unfortunate and a damn shame. It's nearly 2016 and our policies still push for children to be assessed by age group versus skill level. Rather than prioritizing personalized learning, we're still asking for annual assessment data with no significant plan in-hand to act on said data. Our students are already getting tested by their respective teachers and by interim assessments administered by their schools and districts. Our policies today incentivize over-assessment, when they really should be written to incentivize educators to analyze and act on data in real-time.

To balance the standardized testing, one part of the ESSA might actually satisfy the opt-out movement: for states that allow it, parents have the right to opt their children out of these exams. Schools need to show a 95% test participation rate. For schools that don't, the state gets to "decide" what to do. And there's nothing in ESSA about stopping or limiting the opt-out movement growing nationally. Sounds deliberately vague.

As a former educator deeply invested in education, I think this bill is a short-term win for educators, parents, and students, but the hard work remains ahead. The opt-out grassroots campaign is gaining popularity. College students are no longer seeking teaching professions. Clearly, legislators are unofficially acknowledging there's an elephant in the room, and they'd rather deal with it after election season. Or maybe this would be significantly easier to address if a front-runner presidential candidate got serious and deliberate about their own education policy. One-off statements about equal access to quality education and the "original role" of charters don't count Mr. Sanders and Mrs. Clinton. Let's hear a real plan.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Adjusting for Poverty

In a recent NYT article, Eduardo Porter outlines the Economic Policy Institute's report whose findings conclude that once U.S. students' PISA scores are adjusted for social status, we're actually doing significantly better than we thought we were.
"Then the researchers divided students into groups depending on the number of books in their homes, a measure of the academic resources at families’ disposal. This adjustment significantly reduced the American deficit, especially among students on the bottom rungs of the resource ladder. 
American students from families with the least educational resources, as it turned out, scored better on the PISA math test than similar children in France and about the same as Britons, Germans and Irish."
Credit: PhotoPin, licensed under CC by 2.0
These "adjusted" results shouldn't be too surprising for educators entrenched in these realities. We know if we adjust anything for socioeconomic status, we see gains. The issue isn't, "we're doing better once we adjust for poverty." The real issue to me is: we have a lot of poverty for a developed country, and we continue to unfairly burden schools with the responsibility of eradicating it. As if poverty starts and ends with schools. 

My experience in education has been grounded in teaching over-age, under-credited youth in alternative high schools in NYC. Translation: I've only taught adolescents coming from the "the bottom rung of society," as Mr. Porter puts it. Sure, I believe many of my former students are in a better place compared to their peers in similar situations globally (in developed nations, of course). My former students have access to certain privileges, rights, and safety nets. Yet beyond simply "showing up" to school, there aren't any supports available to "propel" students out of poverty, as is assumed what school is "supposed" to do. We often fail to acknowledge an underlying assumption in this dialogue: if students come to school, they will succeed. 

There are certain character traits that need to be developed in children in order for them to succeed in school. Resilience, grit, optimism, learning for pleasure, among others. These may seem obvious, but my teaching experience proved it's these very skills my students lacked, and their absence ultimately led to them dropping out, getting arrested, or worse, getting killed. For some reason, there's a narrative out there that claims students who live in poverty will automatically seek to excel in school once they're given the opportunity to learn. Anybody who has ever taught in an underprivileged school for more than two years (that's important) will tell you otherwise. 

Credit: FindMemes
Unfortunately, when we talk about schools "equalizing opportunity," we ignore the bigger issues, starting from the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Most of my at-risk students never quite made it past the second level. And let me tell you bloggers, economists, ed-pundits, and pontificators something: it's really difficult teaching a child anything when s/he doesn't know (a) where they're spending the night (b) who (if anyone) will be home for them and/or (c) if they'll be any food on the table once they get there. I don't care how "inclusive" your school setting is, or how great your classroom culture is, if a kid is hungry, tired, sleep deprived, and/or abused, it's going to be a very complicated situation.

This elephant in the room creates an uncomfortable divide. To the credit of teachers, I bet most of them are likely able to empathize with these students. However, they're experiencing a professional conflict. Do they hold this child accountable to "high expectations" or do they let the kid slide due to the extenuating circumstances? 
"Hey Stephanie, I can see you falling asleep at your desk. I know you have a housing situation going on (whispered)... but I need you to focus okay? Graphing quadratic functions is going to be on this week's assessment and the state exam." Awful.
In my last three years as an educator, I taught at a charter school for at-risk students in the South Bronx. Sexual education was never offered at this school, which is shocking because these are the students who should be engaged in these conversations. To clarify, "health" class was offered and is mandated for all students in NYC, but alternative schools (where resources are often prioritized to core content areas) rarely ever invest in these courses, nor are educators encouraged to engage in the "real" dialogues so necessary for this student population. 

Here are three essential questions I have heard former students ask each other, but have never heard them discussed in class:
  • "Is it right to have a child this young if I can't even take care of myself?"
  • "My friend has two kids, and she loves taking care of them, is it that easy?"
  • "My dad never stuck around, do you think I could do better?" 
It's no surprise I have so many former students with children, and it's also no surprise they themselves were born to parents who were also in their teens. Why are our most neediest students not receiving real sexual education? Or, why are they able to take sex-ed online where they can simply click through lessons and worksheets and achieve a passing score after only a few hours on a computer? I can't imagine a school that lets kids take Common Core Algebra 1 online, but mandates sex-ed in-person. Sure, it's not in our place to tell people what to do, but we can at least educate them with facts and hope they make the right decision (which is obviously: you shouldn't have a kid at fifteen: your family is on food stamps, you have two younger siblings, and the zip code you were raised indicates you're going to struggle as is). 

Schools that cater to at-risk, poverty-stricken kids don't have time to teach the stuff that's high impact and hits close-to-home. Topics such as sexual education, black disenfranchisement, gang involvement, and personal wealth management are often left out of the curriculum at schools with a low socioeconomic target population because they have to double-down on increasing their student achievement data (i.e. test scores). In NYC, if your school population is on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, you are still assessed in the same way other schools are, which creates conflict and incentives to cheat by administrators, teachers, and students. If you don't think any of this is true, schedule a visit to any of these transfer schools. Then, talk to those teachers off school grounds after dismissal and prepare yourself for brutal honesty.

My conclusion is not that test scores would go up and poverty would be eradicated if schools taught poor children sex-ed and wealth management. Rather, essential skills, knowledge, and personal growth are being sacrificed because schools are being asked to simultaneously boost test scores and eradicate poverty. And because of that, poverty-stricken children all over this country are growing up to hate learning. 
In the NYT, Mr. Porter asks, "Is it reasonable to ask public schools to fix societal problems that start holding disadvantaged children back before they are conceived?" Sir, our country started asking public schools to fix these problems a long time ago via "no-excuses" charter schools. In NYC, these charter schools are often too short-staffed to offer electives beyond the core curriculum, stifling students' creativity. Teacher retention rates in these settings are ridiculously low, and their school disciplinary policies are far too rigid. Finally, if at the end of the day your child poses too much of a "problem" at these no-excuses institutions, he/she is likely already on a list and will soon be booted off to a regular public school (perpetuating the problem). Overall test scores up, resource-sucking problem kids down. 

It doesn't look like our country is ready to ease this pressure off schools, so if we're going to task schools with building social welfare, we should focus on holistic strategies that bring back schools as our "local, community democratic centers." We should consider investing in ways to incentivize parents and guardians into the school building, not just to come for parent-teacher conferences. Parents should see their child's school building as their place of learning too, where they can enroll in skills-based training programs, volunteering programs, mentorship programs, etc. We shouldn't just extend the school day for kids who need remediation, parents should be incentivized to come and learn too (keyword: incentivize, not mandate). Twenty years ago, it was cheaper to buy produce from places we'd never heard of. Today it's still cheaper, yet more and more of us are opting to pay more to purchase local. Investing in the fortification and expansion of our local public schools as democratic, community centers of learning might be expensive, but could be healthier for us in the long-run. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Kindergarten Cops

When I was in kindergarten, I absolutely loved when my teacher provided me with a clear, descriptive rubric aligned to Common Core Learning Standards with every assignment. If you think I'm joking, it's because I am. CCLS didn't exist when I was in Kindergarten. I remember playing with Legos, building toy railroad circuits, drawing and pretending to be Superman, and of course, crying for my mother. And I'm pretty sure my Kindergarten teacher wasn't using a rubric to assess the rigor of my sobbing.

"There is no bathroom!"
Recently, an article from the Atlantic has been making its rounds with educators on social media. In short, the article juxtaposes America's strict, academic "reform" approach with Finland's "let kids play and figure it out" approach to kindergarten. It's an insightful case study of two well-intentioned, yet very different schools of thought in public education. 

Any time a concerned American suggests we take lessons on education policy from Scandinavian countries, they're often blitzed with negativity. "It's a small, homogenous country." "They've never had to deal with our kind of immigration." "That's nice, but they're all white." Some of these criticisms may be valid, but they're not solutions-oriented. They're just statements that make excuses for our own lack of excellence in schools.

Obviously, we're not Finland. But, we can still learn and adopt some of its best practices for our own needs. Or are we just too damn proud? In this standard Finland vs. America argument on education, we tend to ignore Finland's neighbor, Norway. Finland is nearly as populous as Norway (and nearly the same square mileage). Both countries have a comparable labor force and both countries have similar immigration levels. However, Norway tends to score closer to the U.S. on the PISA, which is significantly lower than Finland. Norway's teachers don't need a masters degree, and yet there's a national teacher shortage prompting ad campaigns to attract young professionals to teaching - sound familiar? Back in the early 2000s, Norway instituted a national system of standardized testing (called the NKVS). Again, sound familiar?

I don't know about you (yes, you), but things haven't really changed for me: I like to play. As a child, I loved to play. If I learned from playing, then that's just awesomesauce. As a teacher, some of my most memorable "teacher moments" occurred when I purposefully built for play in my classroom. Yet, it was significantly hard to create the conditions necessary for play teaching high school mathematics. There was a constant nag in my head reminding me my students just had to pass the New York State Algebra 1 Regents exam. Otherwise, we'd both be judged as failures.

Holy rigor, Batman!
Working in education technology today, I'm even more passionate about play in school, but that's also because I'm further removed from the classroom and the daily struggle to balance rigor, engagement, and fun. The thing is, we have to draw a line somewhere. I can't imagine how much more anxiety I would have if play did not exist when I was in kindergarten. I can't imagine how much more grade-driven I would be if my teachers used CCLS-aligned rubrics while I ran around making fart sounds and holding spaceships I made from Legos. Play time at home wasn't exactly reliable because I grew up in a broken home, so I had to make the most out of any fun I could get.

There is no evidence to support that children cannot learn from play or learn and play simultaneously. A former student of mine used to tell me about how he already knew so much about the Crusades because of Assassin's Creed. Sure, it's a video game, so there are inaccuracies. In the classroom, those are called "teachable moments" (take note, those of you who have never taught). These "teachable moments" are opportunities to foster authentic discussion. It's possible to have both. But I'm getting ahead of myself. What I'm really trying to say is children need and benefit from play. We know this. If we're going to insert literacy skills into kindergarten, it should be a data-driven decision, as in it's backed by strong evidence. However, the data seems to support Finland's approach. Why are we so stubborn with this? Let's stop underestimating children. Bring back the crayons, the Lincoln Logs, and the Play-Doh please.